Textile work a long-standing traditionLet’s celebrate Yemen’s artisans [Archives:2004/711/Culture]

February 12 2004

By Irena Knehtl
[email protected]
For The Yemen Times

No longer limited to their traditional uses, the growing demand for Yemeni crafts items as souvenirs, decorative objects and fine art has created the opportunity to reinvigorate these timeless traditions, and see them perpetuate themselves through commercial enterprise.
Enabling artisan communities throughout the country to take advantage of these new income- generation opportunities while simultaneously preserving this time- honored traditions, is at the core of Yemen's drive for sustainable development.
Creation and pristine values of grandfathers shall, forever, remain as evidence of the rich cultural heritage and customs that continue to inspire. They are also among the most endangered aspect of Yemen's heritage.
This art has lived and thrives in Yemen with a vigor for millennia. Yemeni artisans have carved a name for themselves through their production of a remarkably broad array of items, ranging from such beautiful ornamental silver wore to hand-woven baskets, rugs, and camel trappings.

Dye-making for example, is one such endangered craft. It is an ancient Yemeni tradition dating back at least the first millennium BC had dwindled to just a single workshop at Zabid, where indigo was being used to dye cloth and other materials of beautiful shades of blue and purple.
Production of the dye stuff itself had ceased altogether.
Indigo dyestuff is derived from the Indigofena Tinctoria plant which was once prevalent in many region of Yemen. The process of transforming the plant into usable indigo is a laborious and time-consuming one, taking roughly two days to transform numerous kilos of the plant material to the solid dyestuff.
The dye-makes will fill a large earth-ware vat, roughly one meter in diameter with the plant materials and allow it to soak in water for several hours. The plant material is then removed and a tool called “mamaal” is used to vigorously stir the solution, causing the release of the indicant, the compound in the plant that creates the blue color we associate with indigo. Once complete, the dried dyestuff can be stored indefinitely and used by dyers when needed.
The process of dying itself is also lengthy and laborious. The procedure of indigo dyeing ha once challenged dyers in the four corner of the world. Each indigo atelier has its own techniques, even its own secrets. How a particular indigo dyeing tradition has solved the mysteries of the dye is of interest to other indigo dyers.
Indigo used to be favored by the highland tribesmen and women for their turbans and dresses has long been a major industry in the Tihamah, in particularly Zabid. Here indigo was cultivated in great quantity in the medieval period. Today indigo is not longer a domesticated plant, it has gone back to its wild state and natural spread.
Production of dyestuff should be revitalized, dying should be reinvigorated and new markets for indigo products should be targeted locally, regionally, and internationally. Traditional skills will be once again being passed on to a new generation.

Decorated textile
The manufacture of decorated textiles and pottery, for example, is one of the earliest human creative activities found in almost all the ancient civilizations of the world.
The deep-rooted importance of textiles in the social and religious life even of the most isolated Yemeni people suggests a lengthy indigenous tradition of several thousand years. The tradition of textiles in Yemen has to do with deep-rooted association of textiles and fundamental concepts of women creative abilities and powers linking real and symbolic role with fundamental beliefs of fertility and ritual.
Later influences are apparent in the discrete regional textile designs, stemming from the many centuries of trade. Despite these recognizable influences of historical importance, Yemeni wearers over the centuries have absorbed and reinterpreted motifs and techniques into a rich blend of indigenous characters that is unsurpassed in its variety.
The role and use of decorative clothes permeates every face of Yemeni life is adept and fundamental aspect of culture. The motifs incorporated into the cloth surface and the occasions of its use life at the very heart of Yemeni life, and are a potent statement to the world, view and feeling to the tone, character and quality of life, its moral and aesthetic style, and mood.
The close association between individual design and motifs and poetic metaffors and proverbs creates for the Yemen wearer and the society a tangible, ordered realization of its social structure with the textile consumes resembling “the skin.”
In the context of socially binding ceremonies may subtle dimensions are stated through the visible sign on textiles. They represent overt symbols of group identity and markers of relationship between the group. Weddings, in particular, are more than just occasions for decorative and colorful finery. The socializing dimensions of costumes are important symbolic markets of the respective status of families, in the relationship of the husband as taker and husband as giver.
The different dye colors and motifs reflect the individual status of the wearer. In Yemen the customs until recent remained a vital force in the society and ceremonial occasions are conducted with as much vigor as in older times. They reflect the continuity of this tradition and the richness of its appearance is a striking signifier of the unique beliefs and quality of Yemeni life.

Embroidered sentiments:
All Yemeni embroidery takes the form of costume decoration for both men and women and are very ornate and richly embroidered with silver thread and worked in a variety of different techniques and patterns which differ from region and in many cases from village to village. A place of origin could be identified by the style and the way it was embroidered. Elaborate costumes incorporating other textiles were worn during all the major life-cycle ceremonial occasions when the closest of human and social bonds were renewed and extended:

For her I would give the
Green fields by the water canal.

O blossoming scent,
He who smells that scent
He will offer golden coins.

Welcome scented flower
Your smile the light of lighting

My bride price is thirty rifles
And thirty she-camels.

O Sind, O Hind
If rainfall reaches your ears
Think not that it is the rain
But a river of tears.

Like a full moon her beauty
And like palm trees her stature
Why do you ask for sunlight and moonlight?

In a garden of roses,
The caravan of Yemen
awaits the caravan of Sayan.

I wish I were a rose
Placed on my bellowed window
He would not open
And I am too shy to come in.

O almond, o nut
A flowerpot on my window.

The winds will blow on him.
And the rain will wash him.

I was a master of joy
And a master of songs
But today upon my heart
A mountain is falling.

My eyes cried a river of tears
And watered the land that never get rains.

My heart is heavy concealing its burden
Just like a camel loaded for the caravan.

Be aware of places once inhabited
By your beloved ones.
Like dreams at night they seem to have
Never existed at all.

I swear by dust-colored gazelles
In mirage – glinting deserts
Roaming among thorn-trees, and lote-trees
The highest degree of glory and honor.

Convey my greetings to Saleh
With the finest perfumes, mixed with rose water,
ambergris, and saffron.

How many singers before me
And there are songs usung

For you I will ask a night stretching
Form the East

Whose daughter is she?
Whose daughter, this dear one?
She is the daughter of one
Who knows how to write
And read the Book.

I wish I were a bird
With powerful wings
I would shield my beloved
From the burning sun.

My heart no longer loves this life.
If I am exhausted on the day of glory
The hardships of time have left my heart
Where I can I get another heart
In this lifetime?

For us every grains of its soil
Is worth a fight!

Precious stones and pearls remain
Changeless for all time.
Nor do sapphires change, nor coral.

Welcome rains that fills
Yemens villages and town.

Irrigate the gardens of Yemen
Make green and bring forth every flowering branch
All the trees are in bloom!

Persian and Egyptian fame
The textile industry within all regions of the Islamic world received encouragement from all caliphs, princes and assigned governors of the dominions. Together with antiques, spun textiles were the preferred articles considered as gifts exchanging during various memorials, or occasions. One of the factors that also encouraged the development and prosperity of this industry during the Islamic era was the fierce competition among the caliphs and princes as who will send every year the most elegant “Kiswa”, i.e. clothing cover of the Holy Kaba.
Persia and Egypt had their fame in the industrial manufacturing of textile. During the pre-Islamic times and later days ancient kings of Yemen according to historical sources had established workshops for textile production. Even before Islam, substantial volumes of excess production used to be exported, while the “Holly Kaba” itself had been annually covered with particular unique patterns of cloth sheets made of Yemeni origin fibers. The same sources reveal that “Al-Wasayel” was the term locally known for the garment piece that had its textile pattern and was made in Yemen only.
Manufacturing continued throughout the Islamic era. What distinguished that specific brand, or range of textile, was that its decorating proceed through addition of particularly colored fibers, pre-mixed with a specific dying materials. To some extent, that decoration may to day resemble the abstract painting work known within the ethics of modern art. The historical sources indicate that Sana'a, during Al-Abbasi ruling caliphate, had special industries of textile. Moreover, they were all produced during the reign of Bani-Yafers family then the state rulers in Yemen.
It is believed that cotton was first cultivated in South West Arabia around 3000 BC. And textiles once were the most important commodities produces in Yemen. Cotton production in the Tihamah but also in the southern governorarest has been promoted.
Despite unfavorable economic factors the Tihamah cotton it is supplying the cotton factory in Sanaa with raw materials for a reinvigorated textile industry centred on the capital.
In the Tihamah, weaving has been practiced traditionally in Zabid, Bay al-Faqih, Al-Marawiah, Hodeidah, al-Durayhimi and al- Manzar. The Tihamah weaver produce a multi-colored length of cotton cloth which can be used as shoulder cloth, or a bedspread, or a sarong, or a multi- purpose cloth.
The combination of colors are seemingly endless, although the stripes invariably run lengthwise along the cloth.
In the end, Yemen traditional craft industries should soon have renewed cause for celebration as the country's priceless living heritage is ushered into a new era of opportunity and independence.
* Note: All verses are from “Lyrics from Arabia”